Charles Darwin, holy bones and wild orchids at Wenlock Priory

 

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I came upon this wild orchid last week: a single small spike, flowering in the un-mown margins of Wenlock Priory. The Priory is my hometown ancient ruin. In fact the town of Much Wenlock both grew up around, and then later out of the monastery. This latter occurrence was due to some opportunistic recycling on the part of the local populace. After Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1540 (this in a bid to take control of the English church, marry Anne Boleyn and free up some  much needed monastic capital), the lead was ripped from the roofs, and over the years, the stones from the ensuing ruins used to build many of the town’s houses.

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The orchid is Anacamptis pyramidalis, a pyramidal orchid, and fairly common in Shropshire. This particular specimen was only a hand’s span in height, but the plant will grow taller. I did not get down to sniff it, and am sorry now, because I have since read that the flowers have a vanilla scent by day to attract pollinating butterflies. But then at night, when wet with dew, they give off a goaty smell that offends moths, or indeed anyone rash enough to get down on their knees for a quick nocturnal whiff. Their roots have medicinal properties when dried and ground into a sweet, nutritious powder called salep. It was once used to soothe upset stomachs. Perhaps the monks in the priory’s infirmary used it too, but please do not try this at home.

Incidentally, it was Charles Darwin who discovered that the structure of orchid flowers was designed specifically to be pollinated by either butterflies or moths with their long probosces. He wrote about it in Fertilisation of Orchids. Darwin also has a local connection. He was a Shropshire lad, born  in the nearby county town of Shrewsbury in 1809. Shropshire has a lot to answer for, and indeed be proud of.

It is also interesting to think of Darwin within these Priory confines. Just as his book On the Origin Species shook the foundations of Christian orthodoxy, so these ruins mark England’s break from the Church in Rome and a complete shake-up in religious belief that rebounded down the centuries. For years, Darwin put off publishing his theory of natural selection – “like confessing a murder”. Even his wife was concerned about the state of his soul. Only the realization that out in the Malay Archipelago, one Alfred Russel Wallace was arriving at similar conclusions to his own, prompted him to finish his book. In the first public airing that described Darwin’s work, Wallace was also given credit.

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But back to the orchid. I found it growing not far from the place where the Priory’s high altar would have stood, beneath the great east window. Behind that altar was said to be the shrine of St. Milburga. She was a Saxon princess famous for all manner of miracles, and who long after her death, became a big draw on the medieval pilgrim circuit.

For thirty years she had been abbess of the first monastic house in Much Wenlock. This predates the existing 12th – 15th century monastic remains by hundreds of  years, and was founded as a mixed house for both monks and nuns in 680 AD by her father King Merewahl of Mercia. Her grandfather had been the great King Penda, who, it is said,  personally abhorred Christianity, while nonetheless tolerating those with Christian beliefs.

All three of Merewahl’s daughters, and also his queen (after she forsook the marriage) headed religious houses. And I gather it was common in Saxon times both to have mixed-sex religious houses, although with separate places of worship and accommodation, and for them to be ruled by women. Milburga had been well educated at Chelles in Paris before she took up her office. She also controlled extensive estates, which later became part of the Cluniac monastery of Norman times, and yielded large revenues in agricultural produce.  It is clear that in Saxon times, princesses were deemed to have both political and spiritual power to wield. There was apparently no incentive for kings to marry them off in useful dynastic marriages.

The re-discovery of Milburga’s remains in 1101 during the rebuilding of her, by then, ruinous church greatly added to the Priory’s revenue and prosperity as pilgrims flocked to the newly established shrine.  The opulence of the Prior’s lodging, expanded in 1425 , gives an indication of the wealth and power enjoyed by its then Prior, Richard Singer.

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There are many historical accounts of grim goings on in Wenlock Priory – everything from monks counterfeiting coinage to plotting to murder their prior. But these will have to wait for another post. For now more views of the priory ruins and its other plants – wild and cultivated.

IMG_1230.jpgFoxglove in the cloister garden. Digitalis purpurea was used by monastic herbalists from the early Middle Ages to cure dropsy (oedema or swelling caused by fluid). It has also  long been used for heart conditions, although an overdose can prove fatal. Something else not to try at home.

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More mauve than purple – the lavender border (and topiary) in the cloister. Lavender has many soothing medicinal uses – for headaches in particular. I have no idea why the topiary hedges are there – a much more recent non-monastic addition it seems.

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copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

 

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Container Mania: Maine Make-do and Memories

 

 

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The Farrell domain is full of containers of the rural and artisanal variety – too full, says the Team Leader. He murmurs the word ‘cluttered’. I close my ears. These are artefacts to think by.  They resonate with story.  (See  also Basket Case, the story behind my Nubian mats.)

Yet even G was beguiled  by this American sugar bucket or firkin, once used for collecting sap from maple trees.  Not that we knew this when we first spotted it in the Ocean Park antique store in Southern Maine. The elderly owner of this  ‘going-out-of-business’ curio emporium was having a sale. He did not mention the maple syrup, but called the bucket  a farm ‘make-do’, pointing out that the replacement handle was a length of horse harness, and that in its latter days it was probably used for doling out animal feed.

I instantly pictured my own rural upbringing in Cheshire (England). When I was small my parents rented a house on a large farm. I often used to help the farmer’s wife feed the hens, carrying a bucket round the orchard chicken run, and tossing out handfuls of corn to  happy, healthy hens. So you can guess what happened next.

Sold. One ‘make-do’.

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 The ‘make-do’ now sits on the kitchen window sill, and further reminds us of the kindness of Cousin Jan who was the reason we went to Maine in the first place. She let us stay in her magical Ocean Park cottage.  (Thank you, Jan and Craig, and happy anniversary to you both).

The bucket makes me smile for other reasons too. The Stars and Stripes came free when we bought it – a give-away  on account of the flag’s deficit of stars. It only has 48, and thus pre-dates 1959 and the admission of Alaska and Hawaii to the USA. I recall the brittle humour of the dealer who gave it to me. It turned out he was married to an English woman, who coincidentally just happened to come from G’s home town of Wolverhampton. He said he met her during ww2 when he was stationed  nearby. He was thus a bit of an antique himself, although you wouldn’t have known it to look at him. He said he was giving up the shop to concentrate on doing shows instead.

So there you have it. My justification for container mania (and I haven’t even mentioned the Polish potato basket which I use to store my onions, or the Zambian gourd that holds my cooking salt). This plain, rustic bucket simply goes on accruing meaning, a bit like Rumpelstiltskin weaving gold from farmyard straw. Which of course makes me wonder about the craftsman who made it, and the generations of family members who used it, and the circumstances by which one individual decided that, despite the broken handle, there was still good and useful life left in it, and so applied a length of harness strap to keep it going for another generation or two.

But for G, who would ever de-clutter if I gave him the chance, he has own reasons to be well-disposed towards the make-do.  Now that he knows it was probably once used for collecting sugar sap, he recalls the bright winter days of his Ontario childhood, the crisp air filled with the scent of hot maple syrup. For every year, at the winter maple syrup festival, freshly gathered sap would be boiled up outside in a big vat, and then thrown, sizzling, onto the snow-covered ground for some taffy pulling, and then much delicious eating. He speaks of this memory so vividly that I almost believe it to be my own…

copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

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Last Warrior Standing?

 

 

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I have written about this magnificent  Welsh sculpture in more detail in an earlier post, Warrior Wind-Singer of Llyn, but I thought he/she deserved another viewing. This brave Celtic guardian surveys Cardigan Bay from the cliff top above Plas Glyn-y-Weddw, Llanbedrog, on the Llyn Peninsula. It is the work of local craftsmen Berwyn Jones and Huw Jones and replaces two earlier figureheads that met there doom there by fire and corrosion. It is known as the Iron Man of Mynydd Tir y Cwmwd, but as I say, I think it could also be a woman. After all, the Celts had fierce women like Buddug, known more widely today as Boudicca. She was  the warrior queen of the Iceni,  who took on the invading Romans.

 

I find the  figure very moving, the remnant twist of sinew and ligament after bone and flesh have been weathered away. In the spaces between, the steel armature gathers the sea winds and sings. A metaphor, perhaps, for Welsh culture – the bardic verses and sea-sounds of the language that outsiders find so hard to get their tongues round. And for those of you want to hear some Welsh being spoken and see some superlative Welsh drama produced by BBC Cymru Wales, then look out for Hinterland, (Y Gwyll in Welsh), the so-called Celtic Noir detective series. It is currently showing on the UK’s BBC, but it deserves to go world-wide.

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The winding cliff path to the Iron Man

© 2014 Tish Farrell

 

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Much lettered at Much Wenlock’s Poetry Festival

 

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These letters are knitted (I think I was responsible for the red ‘E’) and here they are adorning the cherry tree on the Church Green. This is the Wenlock Poetry Festival’s ‘Poetree’ (artistic licence rendered photo-wise) and, during this now annual April event,  everyone may compose, or write verses from their favourite poem on a luggage tag and hang it on the tree for others to read.

This year the tree has joined in the general creativity by bursting into bloom. In previous years it has been quite bare.

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The festival embraces the entire town, using venues at Wenlock Pottery, Methodist Church, the George and Dragon Pub, Tea on the Square Cafe, and The Edge Arts Centre. Besides the three-day programme of readings, talks and workshops with top British poets, there are verses to be found all over the place. Nearly all the shop windows host one, and they include works by local amateurs as well as the more famous.

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And then there are the ten Dada Poetry Orienteering spinners (including 2 mystery ones) sited about the town. They comprise phrases culled from printed matter – from the Declaration of Human Rights to a tea wrapper. Visit some or all and, with random spins of the pointer, create an on-the-spot composition.

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And when inspiration needs a further boost, then there are refreshments on hand, not only at the Poetry Café in the Priory Hall, but at the town’s ancient inns, and traditional tea rooms.

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And here we come to the heart of the festival, the town’s famously much loved independent book shop, Wenlock Books. Its owner, Anna Dreda, has been the primary driving force behind the festival, enticing, Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s Poet Laureate, to be the festival’s founding patron. The festival is now in its fifth year, and involves the efforts of many dedicated volunteers who put in many months of work to ensure its continuing success.

And so for a small town of less than 3,000 people, we are astonishingly well-lettered, and much of this is down to Anna, who throughout the year (and quite apart from the poetry festival) lures young and old into her lovely shop to take part in reading groups, listen to stories being read, or chat with authors. Coffee and biscuits are ever on offer, and sometimes even a Tea and Toast Breakfast. Last year, too, Anna was invited to meet the Queen during a celebration of British contemporary poetry.

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Anna Dreda.

Anna Dreda of Wenlock Books

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Sadly, you have just missed this year’s festival, but now that you’ve glimpsed a little of what’s on offer in Much Wenlock, check out the festival website below and make a date for next April. But before you leave, a few more views of lettered Wenlock:

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See you at the sixth Wenlock Poetry Festival 2015

 

Related:

Wenlock Poetry Festival

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Of Monumental Mysteries

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”   L P Hartley The Go-Between      

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So what’s the mystery here? No, not that strange woman in a Welsh felted hat doing tai chi. (Actually,  I think I may be in the process of ‘grasping the sparrow’s tail’ Yang-style long form. I’ve rather forgotten).  I remember, though, the icy winter’s day, and the absolute stillness, and the hazy blue views of Wales over the border from my Shropshire homeland, and the feeling that this circle of ancient stones was a special place; that it stirred in me the sense that doing tai chi here would be a good thing.

I have written before about Mitchell’s Fold Bronze Age stone circle,  and you can find the witchy legend associated with it  HERE.  Historically speaking, little is known about the stones  beyond the fact that they were raised some 4,000 years ago. The surviving fifteen stones form a rough circle, although there may have once been as many as thirty. The tallest survivor is said to have originally been one of a pair, and so formed some kind of gateway or threshold at the circle’s edge.

These henges are, on the whole, unfathomable. There is no knowing how the people, who toiled to build them, made use of them, or what their precise significance was in their daily lives. The elevated location of Mitchell’s Fold, with its sweeping vistas, suggests to us a sacred function. There are also possibilities that the stones’ particular alignment served as some kind of calendar, marking solar and lunar events. And, for more prosaic purposes, in a world without maps and SatNav, prominently sited megaliths may also have provided travellers with landmarks to keep them on course through the upland wilds. The Bronze Age was, after all, a time of intinerant smiths and artisans who covered great distances to trade their goods and services.

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This is borne out by the fact that not far from Mitchell’s Fold, just over the Welsh border in Powys,  is the Cwm Mawr Bronze Age axe factory. The distinctive looking axe-hammers that were made here have been found across Wales and England, their discovery demonstrating an extensive trading network. Nor is this henge an isolated monument in the immediate landscape. There are numerous cairns and two further stone circles nearby. This seemingly remote place, then, was very busy some four millennia ago.

As a Prehistory undergraduate, also in times long past, I spent three years in Sheffield University lecture theatres looking at images of barrows, chambered tombs, henges, hillforts, cist burials, urn cremations and other ancestral relics. This being the era of slide projection, the photographs were often shown upside down and back to front; it became a standing (or otherwise) joke, looking at remains from an inverted position. The fact is though, however you looked at them, their intrinsic meaning  could  not be divined. All that might be said is that these mysterious constructions were of immense importance to our forebears. We know this because of the great effort involved in their making; these were people who, by our standards, had very limited technology.

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And so here is another example of megalithic mystery. This is the late Stone Age (Neolithic) Lligwy burial chamber on Anglesey in Wales. Excavation in 1908-9 uncovered the remains of 15-30 people, along with pottery that provided the dating evidence. It is estimated that the capstone weights 25 tonnes. This is truly mind-boggling. How did people without cranes lift this monstrosity onto the supporting stones? How  many people did it take? Wasn’t the population in prehistory supposed to be small?

Of course experimental archaeology has demonstrated that much may be achieved with the cunning use of tree trunk rollers and various simple pulley devices combined with muscle power. But even so,  the Lligwy burial chamber is surely  a triumph of human will  over an absence of hydraulic lifting gear. In this era people had only stone tools.

So yes, the past is a foreign country, and people did do things differently there, and in ways we cannot possibly know. And if I learned anything from three years of studying Prehistory and Archaeology it was not to judge people by their limited toolkit. These people were as intelligent as we are, maybe more so, since there was a greater need to apply it at all times.

Our current understanding of these  monuments may be fragmentary, wrong-headed even, but shouldn’t this be all the more reason to keep these ancient places safe? At this present time in England our heritage is daily under threat from a government that wishes to build its way out of  recession.  Worse still, current laws allow developers to take local authorities to judicial review  if their  planning applications are refused.

To avoid  incurring huge costs to the public in legal representation, local authorities are now being pushed to grant planning permission in close proximity to unique monuments.  At present, in Shropshire, the setting of  2 major sites  is under threat: Old Oswestry Iron Age hillfort, and the post-Roman Offa’s Dyke. Why this is happening is of course absolutely no mystery at all.  The past has cachet. It is a highly sellable ‘commodity’. Let’s sell it off, why don’t we?

© 2014 Tish Farrell

Related:

Valuing the Past: How  much for Old Oswestry Hillfort?

Open to Offa’s: yet another piece of Shropshire’s heritage at risk  in The Heritage Journal  along with many other excellent articles

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Monument

Colourbridge

Life is great

Leya

Travel Garden Eat

PonderTheIrrelevant

The Human Rights Warrior

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Street-wise on Mombasa Beach

Mombasa Beach is as busy as any street, and like any downtown district anything can be traded there. In the margin between ocean and hinterland, people feel they can live outside accepted moral and  cultural bounds. Kikuyu boys may dress up as Maasai to cash in the ‘warrior’ cachet that is so attractive to European women; white women of a certain age think it OK to flaunt themselves on the sands with lovely young Kenyan boys whose real hope is to be adopted or sponsored through school; dope can be bought along with the kanga wraps and hand-carved giraffes. All, then, may not be quite what it seems in this Indian Ocean ‘paradise’.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life

Reflections on Wolverhampton

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Sometimes we rural Much Wenlock souls get to visit the city, our nearest one being Wolverhampton. A couple of Sundays ago we were lucky enough to have tickets to see the Tord Gustavsen Quartet at Wolverhampton University’s Arena Theatre (Jazz at the Arena). It was the final night of their British tour, and what a night it was – utterly captivating musicianship. You can see Peter Bacon’s review at The Jazz Breakfast.

En route to the concert, and to prepare  myself for some Nordic introspection and reflection, I thought I’d dabble in a little West Midlands Noir. I used my Canon Powershot A430, bought on Ebay for twenty quid, and then fiddled about on Windows Live  Photo Gallery. The shots were taken near the theatre and include St Peter’s Church and  other University of Wolverhampton buildings. While I was in the Arena bar I also happened to notice that it had a reflective ceiling.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: reflections

TORD GUSTAVSEN QUARTET: THE WELL

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3A6ziUPbdk

Caught inside a Kikuyu garden: a memorial to Karen Blixen’s lover, Denys Finch Hatton

Denys Finch Hatton obelisk Ngong Hills

This was not supposed to happen. In fact you could say it adds insult to irony:  that a man so steadfastly dedicated to an unfettered life in the wilds should, in death, end up hemmed in, and so very domesticated within this small Kikuyu shamba. Yet here it is, the mournful stone obelisk, marking  the grave of Denys Finch Hatton,  son and heir of the 13th Earl of Winchilsea, Great White Hunter, and lover of two women far more famous than he is: writer Karen Blixen (Out of Africa) and aviator  and race horse trainer Beryl Markham (West with the Night). 

Finch Hatton's grave on the Ngong farm

Yet another woman, the one whose shamba this is, shows him a new kind of love, taking care of the garden around the obelisk.  If you want to visit the place it is not easy to find – either her little smallholding on the Ngong Hills, or the grave within. When we visited years ago we found only a hand-painted signpost nailed to a tree. We parked in a paddock outside the farmhouse door and were charged a few shillings. We could have bought a soda too, if we’d wanted. We could not see the grave though, and soon found that it was deliberately hidden from view by an enclosure of  old wooden doors. More irony here of course. More symbols of shut-in-ness. 

Denys spent most of his life in Africa avoiding any kind of confinement – out  in the Tsavo wilderness, running shooting safaris for the rich and aristocratic. His clients included the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) . In fact it was during the safaris for the Prince in 1928 and 1930 that Finch Hatton began to promote shooting on film rather than with a gun.

His lover, Karen (Tanne), Baroness von Finecke-Blixen lived in a small house below the Ngong Hills, some twelve miles outside Nairobi. By the time she started her affair with Denys she was divorced from her charming, but philandering husband, Bror, although they always remained friends. Her family had invested a great deal in the couple’s coffee farm, and Karen struggled to make a success of it. But the location was entirely wrong, and in the end she was forced to sell up and leave Kenya. It was during the period of selling the farm that she heard news of Denys’s death.

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Looking towards the  Ngong Hills from inside the veranda at Karen Blixen’s house. The house now belongs to Kenya’s National Museums.

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Denys Finch Hatton’s untimely end may be put down to his passion for flying. For those of you who remember Sydney Pollack’s 1985 film Out of Africa, some of the most elegiac moments of the film are when the celluloid version of Finch Hatton  (Robert Redford)  takes Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep)  into the skies above the Rift Valley.  Denys died in his Gypsy Moth in 1931, and in unexplained circumstances. He was taking off from the airstrip down in Voi in southern Kenya when his craft exploded. He and his Kikuyu co-pilot were killed. Denys was forty four.

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View towards Nairobi from Denys Finch Hatton’s Grave, and overlooking another Kikuyu smallholding.

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By the time of his death, his relationship with Karen was  well on the wane, and he had already started an affair with the younger Beryl Markham. His biographer,  Sara Wheeler says in Too Close to the Sun, that there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that Beryl was pregnant with Denys’s child, but that she then had an abortion. To have known this would have truly broken Karen Blixen’s heart: her letters show that she had longed to have a child with Denys.

With yet another twist of irony, it was with his death, that Karen somehow reclaimed him, remembering that he had told her of his wish to be buried in the Ngong Hills. The spot he had chosen was one that Karen had decided on for her own grave.

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Denys Finch Hatton

Karen Blixen with her deerhound Dusk

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There was a place in the hills, on the first ridge of the Game Reserve, that I…had pointed out to Denys as my future burial-place. In the evening, while we sat and looked at the hills from my house, he remarked that then he would like to be buried there himself as well. Since then, sometimes when we drove out in the hills, Denys had said: ‘Let us drive as far as our graves.’ Once when we were camped in the hills to look for buffalo, we had in the afternoon walked over to the slope to have a closer look. There was an infinitely great view from there; the light of the sunset we saw both Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro. Denys had been eating an orange, lying in the grass, and had said that he would like to stay there.

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The obelisk was only put up later by Denys’s brother. During Karen’s last days in Kenya she had the site marked with white stones from her own garden, and as the grass grew up after the long rains, she and Farah, her Somali house steward, erected a pennant of white calico so she could see the spot from her house, some five miles away.

Sometime after she had returned to Denmark she received a letter with some strange news about the grave:

The Masai have reported to the District Commissioner at Ngong, that many times, at sunrise and sunset, they have seen lions on Finch Hatton’s grave in the the Hills. A lion and lioness have come there, and stood, or lain, on the grave for a long time…After you went away, the ground round the grave was levelled out, into a sort of big terrace. I suppose that the level place makes a good site for the lions, from there thy can have a view over the plain, the cattle and game on it.

Out of Africa

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copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

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Tish Farrell is an award winning writer for young people. Her latest novella is on Amazon Kindle (5 star review):

Secrets, conspiracies, tragedy, dark comedy – a fast-paced novella of interwoven tales set somewhere in East Africa. For young adults and adults alike.

Abandoned: Great Zimbabwe

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Inside the Great Enclosure of Great Zimbabwe. These magnificent walls have survived for nearly seven centuries, and not a lick of mortar to keep them standing.

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No one knows exactly why this great African city  was abandoned. For some 350 years, until  around 1450 AD,  Great Zimbabwe had been a flourishing merchant centre that drew in from the surrounding country supplies of gold, copper, ivory, animal skins and cotton. The city’s entrepreneurs  then traded these goods on to the Swahili city states of Sofala and Kilwa on the East African coast. (You can read more about the Swahili HERE). In return, the traders brought back luxury goods –  jewellery, decorative pieces such as 13th and 14th century Chinese celadon dishes and Persian ceramics.

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The city’s ruins cover 80 hectares, its many stone enclosures commanding the southern slopes of Zimbabwe’s High Plateau watershed between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers. The site is well watered with good grazing throughout the year. It is above the zone of the deadly tsetse fly that can infect both cattle and humans with sleeping sickness; and the plateau’s granite scarps provide plentiful building stone and other raw materials. Even so, these favourable circumstances do not explain why this particular settlement rose to such prominence.

For Great Zimbabwe was not a singular phenomenon. Contemporary with it,  and across the High Plateau region, are the remains of at least a hundred other mazimbabwe (houses of stone). Several were large enough to have been the capitals of rival states. Others may have been satellite communities occupied by members of Great Zimbabwe’s ruling lineage.

So who were the city’s builders?

During Zimbabwe’s colonial times, and until independence, the  Rhodesian government actively supressed  evidence that Great Zimbabwe was built by Africans.  Many of the other stone ruins were destroyed or re-purposed by European settler farmers. The official view claimed that the city was Phoenician, and that the Queen of Sheba’s fabled kingdom of Ophir had been discovered. Archaeologists, however, have long demonstrated  that it was the cattle-owning Karanga Shona who built Great Zimbabwe. The first phase of stone building began around 1100 AD. Thereafter, the city’s rising fortunes and successive building phases suggest its increasing control of the ancient High Plateau trade routes to the Swahili cities of Sofala and Kilwa.

Gold was the key commodity, and it is likely that it was Great Zimbabwe’s successful cattle production that provided it with the trading power to secure gold supplies from mines some 40 kilometres away. The more prosperous the city became, the more sophisticated its demonstrations of prestige. In around 1350 AD  the Great Enclosure of finely dressed stone was built. This huge elliptical structure with its mysterious platform and conical tower is thought to be the royal court. There is no indication that the walls were defensive. This was  a regime confident in its power and authority.

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Peter Garlake’s reconstruction of the Great Enclosure Platform from Life at Great Zimbabwe,  Mambo Press 1982

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Then why did the city decline?

There are various explanations: the people had let their herds overgraze the land; they had cut down all the trees; there was a prolonged period of drought as may happen in southern Africa. But somehow none of these theories quite explain why, after 350  flourishing years, a community of perhaps 20,000-plus people should simply pack up and leave. Did all these farmers, herders, miners, craftspeople, soldiers, traders, accountants, court personnel and the city’s rulers  leave on a single day, or did the city die slowly?  The archaeological evidence does not say.

But we do know there were disruptive external forces at work. In the 15th century the Portuguese invaded the Swahili coastal city of Sofala. They were on the hunt for gold and so pressed inland with Swahili guides. Their interfering presence drove the trading routes north, giving rise to the Mutapa state. This new state may well have been founded by people from Great Zimbabwe. Certainly by this time the Swahili traders were coming up the Zambezi to trade with the Shona directly, the old trade route through Great Zimbabwe no longer used. At this time, too, we see the beginning of another Shona city state  with the building of the stone city at Khami near Bulawayo in southwest Zimbabwe. In the following centuries this became the centre of the Torwa-Rozvi state whose other major cities during the 16th and 17th centuries included Naletale and Danangombe.

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The Great Enclosure entrance at Great Zimbabwe built c.1350 AD

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And so into history…

Of course with the Portuguese incursions comes the first documentary evidence. From the early 1500s Zimbabwe’s royal courts enter the historic record in the accounts of the Portuguese conquistadores. In 1506 Diogo de Alcacova writes to his king, describing a city  of the Mutapa state

“called Zimbany…which is big and where the king always lives.”  His houses are “of stone and clay and very large and on one level.” Within the kingdom there are “many very large towns and many other villages.” 

The Portuguese historian Faria y Sousa also describes the King of Mutapa’s great retinue which included the governor of the client kingdoms, the commander-general of the army, the court steward, the magician and the apothecary, the head musician “who had many under him and who was a great lord”. Also noted were the vast territories over which the king ruled, the revenues and subject kingdoms of the king’s several queens.

And suddenly we have a true glimpse of what this land called Zimbabwe might have looked like in the past, a bustling, mercantile, metropolitan culture, supported by gold miners, farmers, cattle herders and craftspeople. And so it remained until well into the 18th century, albeit with a shift of Shona power to the southwest and the Torwa-Ruzvi state as the Portuguese presence caused increasing instability. Then in the 19th century came new invaders – the Nguni, the Ndebele and the British.

This centuries old heritage of royal courts is not a picture that the likes of Cecil Rhodes or, the later Rhodesian government of Ian Smith ever wanted anyone to see. And so in the end this is not so much a story of a city abandoned by its people, but of a people wilfully excluded from their past.  In 1980 when Zimbabwe became an independent state, some of this past was reclaimed: the new state took its name from the first great Shona city, and  adopted for its flag and coat of arms, an image of one of the city’s ceremonial soapstone birds. These are small steps forward, but there is still a long way to go before the world sees the indigenous histories of the Africa continent in their true perspective, and acknowledges their intrinsic cultural worth.

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There is more about Great Zimbabwe in an earlier post HERE.

References: The classic work on the excavations of the city is Peter Garlake’s Great Zimbabwe 1973. For an overview of the mazimbabwe culture see Innocent Pikirayi’s The Zimbabwe Culture AltaMira Press 2001. For a wider historical perspective Randall L. Pouwels The African and Middle Eastern World, 600-1500 Oxford University Press.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

 

Object, subject, object? Who cares when it’s this much fun…

 

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It was a brilliantly cold December day and we heading for the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens when when we happened on this marvellous magic mirror. We were already in fantasy-mode too. We had just been questing in Kensington’s Enchanted Palace exhibition, wherein the State Apartments had been filled with mysterious installations that told serial tales of seven princesses who had once lived in Kensington Palace. Many of the stories were hauntingly sad, and the last of these, Princess Diana’s, very much skated over. And so, despite the grandeur of the place, and the wonder of the installations, we were left with disturbing cobwebby feelings that made me think of finding wicked fairies in the attic. It was good to step out into the icy air and  regain some sense of reality.

But then look what happened…?

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Wandering through the wintery park, we collided with this piece of optical wizardry – sculptor Anish Kapoor’s C-Curve – a highly polished steel convex-concave mirror. It turned out to be one of four magnificent pieces making up the six-month 2010-11 exhibition put on by the Serpentine Gallery in conjunction with the Royal Parks. Sadly, the exhibition is over, but you can have a retrospective view and see a short video at this link:

Anish Kapoor: Turning the World Upside Down

 

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But the great thing about the C-Curve was the huge enjoyment it was giving to all the passers-by. Public art at its very best. You could walk right up to it. You could watch yourself do silly walks and upside-down too. You could hug your partner and grin inanely at your reflections. It made you, the viewer, the subject of the work. It inspired you to explore the landscape with fresh eyes as reality became a multi-layered spectacle and wonder. It was thus a resplendent antidote to palace fantasies and wicked fairies in the attic. What an artist is Anish Kapoor.

 

And finally for a different interpretation of OBJECT. Here is Anish Kapoor and friends in the official Amnesty International’s video objecting to human rights abuses. Gangnam for Freedom. Go for it…

 

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Object